Kerstboodschap Tilburg University

Be like ants to live the good life

Published: 17th December 2021 Last updated: 24th December 2021

When does man do good, Aristotle posed as a question. How then can science contribute to the good life, for all and remove obstacles? Theologian Willem Marie Speelman addresses such questions, translated into thinking about the big issues of today: sustainability, care, leadership and poverty considered from a Franciscan perspective. 'We can look at the world in a different way, with a perspective of harmony.'

‘Science begins by asking the right questions. We are used to constantly addressing problems and to seeking solutions in efficiency and expenditure. The economic historian Robert Skidelsky advocates a different outlook on life and reality. One that is more appreciative of sustainability and guided by caution and responsibility, not the pursuit of short-term effects. This ties in with the spiritual question about the good life: what perspective does it afford humankind? Aristotle already asked that question: what is the highest good, eudaimonia? And everyone knows that life’s appeal lies not in the material, in the tedium of the Swiss Life, but in love, relationships, harmony, and being appreciated.

In that context, I would like to refer to Pope Francis’ encyclical about the earth as our common home, Laudato Si, in which he contends that the world is a mystery of which we are all part. We ought not to see it as a problem, for that view reveals but a fraction of reality to us, but instead accept, value, and explore it. And reflect on a different relationship with nature. When people measure CO2 in a lab, they are scientists, yet those same scientists, when sitting in their gardens, are keenly aware that they are part of the planet.’

Wim Speelman

We should certainly not deny problems, but we can choose to look at the world differently, from the perspective of harmony.

Willem Marie Speelman - Endowed Professor of Franciscan Spirituality, Theology and History

Surely, we cannot shun problems?

‘No, we should certainly not deny problems, but we can choose to look at the world differently, from the perspective of harmony. Consider the Covid-19 pandemic: our aim was to develop a vaccine post-haste, but we should also reflect on our relationship with nature. Many targets we set are about money. Or consider Allowance-gate and leadership; our default setting is to come up with swift solutions, but such an approach does little to restore humanity. We ought to look deeper. For my research I interviewed Tax and Customs Administration staff; it turned out they have a strong sense of justice, but they were not permitted to assert their responsibility. They were neither seen nor heard.

A clue to an answer may be gleaned from nurses who know what truly matters when they brush an ICU patient’s teeth, which strictly speaking they need not do. This is restoring humanity to humankind. This is the perspective of care, rather than of efficiency, of quick and cheap aid. It is these issues that I confront the organizations with.’

How does a theologian help reduce suffering in the face of such problems as inequality, poverty, and global warming?

‘Some people are miserably poor; others are miserably rich. St Francis was poor in a good way; he embraced the earth. For thousands of years there have been people who consciously opt for poverty as a way of life. Being poor can hold great appeal. Ask yourself this question: are deer and bees poor? They have nothing. Framing poverty solely as a problem might do nothing but exacerbate it.

Approach people differently: let them tell their life stories themselves. The mystery of life can’t be unravelled or resolved; I am a mystery to myself, but not a problem. It is my job as a researcher to collect and analyse these stories. We are currently exploring poverty in Nigeria, and we are learning how difficult it is to try and make poor people talk about their poverty. They want to be helped and they are trying to sort things out, but then they tell us that in Nigeria everyone is corrupt and that no one is actually helping them. Yet we need to know their full stories to be able to detect their vision of a good life. The book The face of poverty relates how Dutch people raised money in aid of a poverty-stricken village in Malawi. Of course, money can help, but it won’t if the tale of poverty remains partly untold. This is why the village assembly was asked how the money was to be used, and the assembly decided to buy artificial fertilizer to help secure a good crop come harvest time. The good life to them at the time meant not losing fellow villagers to starvation the next year.’

What can theology offer us in terms of sustainability?

‘We’re not doing a particularly good job of living on this planet of ours, and we know it. To Earth, that is not a particularly pressing concern; it can take care of itself. It is for humankind to ask itself: how are we living our lives and how will our children live theirs? Let us be aware of our ecological footprint. Let us be more like ants: even in terms of mass, there is more of them than of us, yet they leave no waste. In a way, they live penitent, humble lives. St Francis wanted to live such a life, too. Being content with what he needed, he asked for no more.

Not using more than one needs can be a good life, if we aim to not take from life all that we can. Are we happy now that traffic jams are once again peaking? I can be happy knowing that people in Spain enjoy their landscape without being there myself; I enjoy the scenery here. We can experience feelings of happiness when we take exercise, enjoy the good things in life in moderation, and use only what we need.’

Willem Marie Speelman (1960) has been appointed as extraordinary professor of Franciscan Spirituality, Theology and History at the Franciscan Study Center as of September 1. That center is located at the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology (TST).

(By Tineke Bennema)

Foto by Wilfried Scholtes